History in a Glass
In the brilliant sunshine of a fall morning in Istria, I swirl the pale pink wine. As I bring it to my nose, I catch the unmistakable aroma of the Muscat grapes. The taste, unexpectedly, is dry and crisp with a long finish. It is a fruity and unpretentious wine, meant to be drunk fresh and young. As I sip, I wonder where the ambitious thirty-something Slovene winemaker Primož Rojac got the idea of making a dry rosé from a grape that when used alone is generally made into dessert wines. “This,” he says proudly, “is the wine of Maria Theresa. I will sell it for twenty-five euros a bottle.” What does this mean? I ask myself. Why Maria Theresa? Does Rojac actually have any idea what the Austrian Empress drank in the middle of the eighteenth century? What relationship does this wine have to the opportunities and challenges presented to a family farmer like Rojac by Slovenia’s recent entry into the European Union? And can he, in a world awash in reasonably good wine, succeed in charging this much for a wine no one has ever heard of? For the past three days, I have been touring the vineyards of this region with my Slovene colleague Egon Pelikan, a historian of interwar Europe, an avid hunter and fisherman, and an amateur wine historian. We are interviewing wine producers, trying to determine how they are adapting to the new conditions that Slovenia’s accession to the European Union have created. What we have seen in general is that, rather than producing jarring and rapid change, globalization in this corner of the world and this particular industry has had barely noticeable effects for most Slovene wine producers and drinkers. Rojac, one of a group of younger winemakers who, we are told, have been remaking the Slovene wine industry in the last decade or so, is an exception. Energetic and inventive, he is certainly happy to tell us his story.
Slovenia is a wine-drinking country. In fact, though consumption appears to have dropped in the past decade, Slovenes nevertheless consume around forty liters of wine per person per year. It is also a significant wine-producing country, with an output estimated at close to 90 million liters per year. Perhaps the most important center of Slovene wine production is Primorska, precisely the area where the Rojac vineyards are located. In the shadow of the Alps and on the shores of the Adriatic, it is in the midst of a larger wine-producing territory now controlled by three states: Italy, Slovenia, and Croatia. This region, today’s Friuli (Italy), Primorska (Slovenia), and Istria (Croatia), is known historically as the Julian March. Its economy has always been heavily agricultural, and wine has been its most crucial commodity from at least Roman times. As early as 1483, a young Venetian aristocrat, Marino Sanuto, accompanying his uncle on a tour of the mainland possessions of the Republic of Venice, kept a journal (Itinerario di Marin Sanuto per la terraferma veneziana, nell’ anno MCCCCLXXXIII [Padua, 1847]) in which he reported on the quality of the wine in every town. In Udine, the capital of the region of Friuli, he commented on the refreshing dry white wine, which he called “most excellent.” In Istria, by contrast, he praised the dark, fullbodied red wines.
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